‘Hummingbird’ dreamy second album for Local Natives: each track explained

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1) “You and I” 

This song’s strength lies in its lyrics. It hits its stride on the chorus (When did your love, when did your love go cold? / The closer I get, the farther I have to go), and only improves from there. “You and I” is brimming with wails of anguish, but they don’t come off whiny; instead, they seem sincere and heartfelt.

2) “Heavy Feet”

An ode to summer, youth and unrealistic ideals, “Heavy Feet” relays the juxtaposition — and contradiction — of idealism and cynicism, something to which listeners can undoubtedly relate.

The band  warns those “telling me how you’re going to outlive your body” that they may be “left in the sun, shivering.” The speckles of doubt bring the song down to earth.

3) “Ceilings”

The lyrics don’t take much figuring out (“Haven’t stopped your smoking yet / so I share your cigarette”; “thinking of what we’d give to have one more day of sun”), but they are sweet at the core, especially when they lead to the chorus of “all my silver dreams bring me to you.”

4) “Black Spot”

The first track on the album to move toward an upbeat tempo, “Three Months” keeps the album moving. This song probably would have been featured on the soundtrack to “Garden State” if it had been around in 2004.

5) “Breakers” 

“Breakers” is more generic sounding track, as if Muse and Beirut got together and fed its lovechild Xanax for breakfast. But if you’re into that sort of thing, then you probably won’t be able to get enough of it. The immediate sounding piano background melts with the vocals to create a dreamworld.

6) “Three Months”

A beautiful piano highlight, but it verges on sounding boring. It’s lulling, which is good if you’re looking for a way to fall asleep in a minute and a half. Otherwise, it leaves listeners looking for something more.

7) “Black Balloons”

The tempo is back up on this one, but it feels oddly familiar. That’s probably because it starts out sounding almost exactly like Bon Iver’s “Perth,” yet somehow speeds up crazily with those six notes still lingering in the background. Either way, it makes for an enjoyable song, even if it is unoriginal in parts.

8) “Wooly Mammoth”

A complaint and a cry for help all in one, “Wooly Mammoth” is one of the darker tracks on “Hummingbird.” Moving from sentiments of abandonment to asking for comfort, it emphasizes the vulnerability of the album.

9) “Mt. Washington”

Local Natives brought in The National’s Aaron Dessner to produce this album, and “Mt. Washington” echoes his influences. It’s reminiscent of tracks from The National’s “Boxer,” but still comes off holding its own.

10) “Colombia”

Although solid for the most part, the album’s rough patches are almost instantly apparent; “Colombia” is one of these rough patches. It has no particular flow and blends together in a bad way. The group repeatedly asks “Am I loving enough?” to the point of being whiny and unlikeable.

11) “Bowery”

The album closes on a strong note, with a heartfelt track with, the piano, drum and guitar parts perfectly meshing and melting to a grand finale. In fact, as a whole, the whole album feels like lying on your back on a sunny day, hazily watching clouds float by in the sky, maybe while eating cotton candy. Yeah, it’s pretty dreamy, but not in the mindless way. It seems to suggest life is but a dream for this group, and maybe that’s exactly what they were going for the whole time.

Ra Ra Riot: your pushover friend

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Ra Ra Riot has become musical personification of a pushover.

You know, someone that starts out with his or her own personality, but then tries to conform to the expectations of others to gain acceptance. In the group’s third studio album, “Beta Love,” they anticipate that a swirl of synths and poppy beats — all with a dash of the ‘80s, of course — is a guaranteed recipe for popularity and success.

The problem is we’ve heard it all before.

Tracks like “I Shut Off” and “Angel, Please” sound like a mix of Vampire Weekend, Rooney and any given indie rock band.

Sometimes drawing inspiration from what makes other bands work can produce an entirely different sound, but for Ra Ra Riot, it washes them out and makes them sound forgettable.

The album approaches saturation far too quickly, and slowly it becomes more tiresome.

The change may have come out of necessity. After violinist Alexandra Lawn left in Feb.   2012 the band had to make do with what the have, but her departure is what’s missing.

You might have thought of Ra Ra Riot as “that kinda emo, but still kind of upbeat indie rock band with all the strings,” but that’s what made them worth listening to — and now it’s almost completely gone.

After investing so much time in their own sound, it seems counteractive to move back, even if they were missing a key part of the band.

Sure, some songs are still catchy. Give tracks like “Binary Mind” and “Dance With Me” a  few listen through, and it’s hard to at least not slightly enjoy it.

But they lack beauty. The lyrics aren’t redeeming; they feel impersonal and calculated.

One of the CD’s lead tracks, “Beta Love,” is catchy, but with its lyrics (“I might be a prototype, but we’re both real inside / Would you take me up this time?”) feeling like they were just slapped into the song lackadaisically, it feels cheap.

What happened to the indie rock band that started off with potential and worked to shape itself toward being a strong contender in the business?

If it weren’t for Wes Miles’  distinguishable lead vocals, “Beta Love” would hardly be worth mentioning.

Miles striking yet soothing voice still carries the tracks along, but it just seems incomplete.

Their new sound is not a welcome revival, but instead is overdone and outdated.

It’s not the absolute worst they could do, but it’s a far cry from their best.

Download this: “Dance With Me.”

Originally published in The Verge on January 25, 2013

‘LongLiveASAP’ worth wait

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When a musician pushes back his much-hyped debut album two times, he needs it to deliver.

Luckily for A$AP Rocky, it does.

Rocky start came from promise. With his mixtape “LiveLoveA$AP,” he caught the attention of the industry quickly.

It scored him a spot at last year’s SXSW, Pitchfork’s summer music festival and as an opening act for Drake.

Since his skyrocketing fame, Rocky has, as he describes on track “PMW (All I Really Need)” indulged in a women, material possessions and recreational drugs, to put it nicely (you can take a guess as to what the song’s acronym really stands).

But that doesn’t mean he’s developed an ego. At heart, he’s still the same kid from Harlem; now he just mixes his past and present influences to create dynamite music.

He juxtaposes himself on “Suddenly,” discussing how his success that happened overnight was fueled by a childhood that produced the “shit that made him rhyme”: “(We had) shootouts like one SIG with two rounds….That’s everyday s***, s*** we used to that.”

Then on “Fashion Killa,” it’s almost a complete 180. He repeatedly admits he’s trendy and rolls with girls who are immersed in expensive taste. It’s basically a who’s who in the designer world as he casually name drops Prada and Dolce and Gabbana. Oh, and he “can’t forget about Escada, and that Balenciaga.”

On “Goldie,” which was released early last summer, he talks about chains coming from Cuba and red bottom loafers “just to compliment the mink.”

Rocky isn’t all about hype, though. He may be celebrating, but he’s still just doing his thing regardless, rapping effortlessly over slickly produced, often collaborated tracks.

While collaborations can sometimes take away from an album by making it sound overdone and feel more like a PR move, for “LongLiveA$AP,” it’s the highlight.

Rocky rings in your expected rap and hip hop names, like Kendrick Lamar, 2Chainz and SchoolboyQ, but he also brings in respected Santigold, dubstep king Skrillex and even dark Florence Welch. Surprise collabs like these could seem like shock just for the sake of shock, but they work well.

Song “Wild For The Night,” in which Skrillex works some synth magic, is a smooth track designed to make a weekend party playlist, and even the most anti-dubstep listener can’t help but get into it.

Rocky also does some more expected collaborations, like on standout “1Train.” Respected contemporary rappers Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T. flow effortlessly.

The album does have its tiring moments, mainly because at times, it all starts to sound the same.

Rocky’s signature deep voice overs can sound monotonous and, at times, lulling.

The rapper’s biggest strength is his ability to adapt and make the music his own. The beats and rhythm are stamped with his style. And if he has this much style on a debut, just wait to see what’s to come.

Download these: “I Come Apart,” “Suddenly,” “1Train”

Originally published in The Verge on January 17, 2013

‘Somethin ‘Bout Kreay’ is for pregaming, not awards

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Kreayshawn is the Ke$ha of the rap game.

There’s really no other way to describe her musical style. As a lyricist, Kreayshawn, the stage  name of Natassia Zolot, is laughable. As a singer and a rapper, her vocals are off—or at least that’s what she wants you to think.

It’s not apparent as to whether what Kreayshawn presents is reality. Her voice is tweaked and flattened, and much of her lines come off more as talking than actual rapping.

More than anything, though, Kreayshawn is the quintessential wannabe.

She’s grouped into that current seemingly uncategorizable group of  white girl rappers, including her partners in crime in subpar rap, V-Nasty and Lil Debbie.

She does have her own style; there’s no denying that. But her whole essence comes off as desperate for fame and success to pay for that extravagantly destructive lifestyle she raps (most of the time with little to no elegance) about.

Then again, maybe her whole persona so far is just to troll those who sit behind their computer screens, waiting for the Next Big Thing in (bad) rap to come across their Tumblr feeds.

Her song “Summertime” featuring V-Nasty is an example of this and is also one of the CD’s worst tracks. The lyrics have almost zero artistic or comedic value. Much of the song talks about her partying lifestyle, and one could easily assume the song was written under the influence of…something.

What Kreayshawn has going for her, almost exclusively, is the guilty pleasure factor. She’s charming, fun to listen to and almost infectious at times.

She does pull in some bigger names for some collaborations, like 2 Chainz, Kid Cudi and Diplo, artists who probably wouldn’t have added their names to her album without seeing some  specifically hidden talent.

“Twerkin’!!!,” featuring Diplo, was undoubtedly created for drunken nights on dance floors. That’s not an insult—Kreayshawn’s target audience would eat this up at any chance it was played during their hazy nights.

“Gucci Gucci” is the tongue-in-cheek standout of the album. The track that sparked Internet talk and much of her present-day fame is confusing in part because Kreayshawn definitely isn’t the definition of straight class; in fact, she’s a far cry from it.

But in this song, it’s almost as if she convinces listeners into believing she is better than those girls who hide behind their brand names as a sense of identity.

“Why you be lookin’ bitter? I be lookin’ better,” she says along with her go-to insult, “basic bitch.” She’s letting everyone know that she doesn’t need that high-end lifestyle to be more fly than y’all.

Coming in at a close second to “Gucci Gucci,” though, is upbeat “Go Hard (La.La.La).”

It’s an anthem for a girl who wants it all and still wants to have a good time while doing it. It’s an immature look at a nothing life of using your parents’ money and partying ‘til you hit the floor.

The most poignant line of the whole song is “Do it like, do it like, let me see you go hard.” What she lacks in lyrical depth, though, she makes up in intoxicating beats. It’s hard to not listen to the song—once, twice or on infinite repeat.

And that’s what makes Kreayshawn work. Sure, she comes off as satire rap, but it still remains unclear if even she’s in on the joke.

Her strength, though, is how catchy she is, whether you like it or not.

She truly is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. She’s not going to meet the female rap ranks of Missy Elliot or Lauryn Hill, but she knows that and is here to play with the game, for better or worse.

Will Kreayshawn’s career actually go anywhere, or will she just be another one of those people we forget about in a few months? Kreayshawn will probably be the one to decide that one, thank you very much.

Kreayshawn is not for just everyone, and she’s hardly for anyone. But those who appreciate a good/bad rapper will find something to love about her because, really, there is just somethin’ ‘bout Kreay.

Listen here.

Originally published in The Verge on September 27, 2013.

‘Sun’ is bright new look for Cat Power

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Just when you thought you had Cat Power figured out, she’s back to let you know you don’t know her at all.

A musician’s personal life doesn’t always necessitate the inspiration behind his or her song material. We can’t psychoanalyze an artist solely by a few tracks on any given album. But with Cat Power, it’s hard to ignore the deeper story that is always embedded into her songs.

“Sun” comes six years after her last album of original material. During this time, it was reported she broke up with her longtime boyfriend, chopped off all her hair and hopped on a plane to France.

This album is what she calls her “rebirth,” and that’s exactly how it comes off to listeners.

To say this is a coming-of-age album for Cat Power (the stage name for Chan Marshall) would be slightly incorrect — she is 40 now, after all. But in some ways, it still feels like after all this time, she’s content with her place and reflecting on this growth.

Those who have never listened to a Cat Power album may not think twice about the electronic feel of “Sun,” but anyone who has heard even a few of her songs know this album is a step in a new direction.

Even veering away from her signature style of sad, powerfully soulful songs toward more upbeat tracks works for Marshall. The bulk of the album’s sound is created using vocal manipulation and dubbing, but it is done in a way that isn’t forced or fake. Instead, “Sun” is a complex, layered work with a grander sound than anything she’s ever put out.

Track “Ruin” is one of the album’s highlights and sets the precedent for the differing sound of “Sun.” It also veers toward a new subject matter for Marshall.

In the song, lyrics like “Bitchin’, complain’ / when some people ain’t got shit to eat” suggest that perhaps we shouldn’t be as negative about our lives when people are truly suffering in the world. This is an obvious shift from the singer who is known to border on self-deprecation more frequently than not.

The album isn’t without its moments of despair, though. She hasn’t completely abandoned the melancholy subject matter that taps into even the coldest, emotionally reserved listeners.

Song “Cherokee”  (with lyrics like “Never knew pain like this”) shows she hasn’t put the darkness that almost seems to infect her soul behind her.

For once, though, the standout moments come not from despair, but experimentation.

The best parts of the album come from her biggest sound risks, both instrumentally and lyrically.

“3, 6, 9” has the signature Cat Power bluesy crooning, but with synths craftily inflused and dashes of Auto-Tune.

Yes, Auto-Tune. Does this mean she’s sold out to the recording technique that generally implies a lack of singing talent? Far from it. She uses it in such a way that it works. It gives the track that extra touch of complexity that would have made it sound dull otherwise.

Marshall’s evolution is almost a contradiction. She’s still fragile and susceptible to sadness, but she has also risen from her past. For once, this is not a Cat Power album of heartbreak. It’s a work that documents growth and conquering tormenting emotions.

Originally published in The Verge on Sept. 20, 2012

‘Four’ shows signs of struggle

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Bloc Party is going through a bit of a rough patch.

It’s never easy to recover from a successful and highly acclaimed album (in their case, 2005’s “Silent Alarm”). By setting their own bar so high, it’s tough to live up to expectations that all their other works will be as big of a hit.

But when a band continuously regresses, as Bloc Party did with their 2009 album “Intimacy” and now their latest work, “Four,” more often than not it becomes a sign that they’ve hit that inevitable “their earlier stuff was better” curse.

It’s unfair to say Bloc Party have given up trying to be as good as they once were.

The band hasn’t gotten lazy; it’s apparent they’re still trying, but the spark that made their earlier albums work has since fizzled out.

On “Four,” lead singer Kele Okereke pushes through on the harder rock tracks and sings with some passion on the slower songs, but something still seems bland.

Perhaps the real fault of “Four” lies not in the band’s work ethic, but in the songs themselves: they are almost all lackluster and hardly feel special for a band that seven years ago seemed to have the most promise out of anyone in the punk-dance-rock category.

Track “3×3” just sounds plain whiny, and “V.A.L.I.S.” is the only song that has even a hint of the emotional tenderness that the band does infrequently, but usually well.

That’s not to say the album is a complete flop. Tracks like “Octopus” and especially “Team A” stand out among the less impressive songs.

Still, the tracks that shot Bloc Party to notoriety are noticeably missing; nothing on “Four” compares to their biggest hits from “Silent Alarm,” “Banquet” and “Helicopter.”

The band almost makes it, but they fall short at best and way too far at worst. The blazing fire that came from these tracks has now been reduced to dimming flames, not completely extinguished, but going out fast with each mediocre song.

Aside from the noticeably unremarkable tracks, the biggest point “Four” makes is their continued change from previous works — more than they ever had before. Track “Coliseum,” while not a complete loss, starts out sounding almost country before it blends into hard rock that sounds like it could venture into exasperated screamo by the end. It’s weird, to say the least. And it’s not the only song on the album that makes listeners scratch their heads saying, “Huh?”

So, is this it for Bloc Party? Are they “done”? Probably not, but it’s about time we stop holding them up on such an unreachable pedestal.

Maybe Bloc Party has changed their sound for good, and maybe we should stop hoping for things to go back to the way the used to be.

Change can be good, but if the band wants to keep this change, they need to be better.

Originally posted in The Verge on August 31, 2012

Losing My Religion: How I’ve Lost Faith in the Gospel According to Vogue

Vogue is my Bible. Well, it used to be.

I’ve been an avid reader since junior high, before I even knew what real fashion was (denim mini skirts with double-popped collar polos…enough said). Ever since I purchased my first issue, I was obsessed. I couldn’t get enough of  the magazine.

I read “The Devil Wears Prada” (and watched the subsequent movie featuting Meryl Streep as a dead-on satirical Anna Wintour), and instead of being terrified, only felt propelled to go into journalism. Even if I got the lowest-of-the-low assistant jobs, I’d at least be in my own personal Heaven.

My best friend and I used to make a 30-minute trip to the closest Border’s (rest in peace) just to purchase the month’s latest issue; we’d then just sit in coffee shops in silence as we each pored over the new magazine.

My walls are covered with collections of Vogue covers. When my sister went to Germany this summer, she knew not to get me a T-shirt that would be inevitably destined as pajama-wear or some thoughtful-but-tacky snow globe, but rather the August copy of Deutsch Vogue.

I think it’s safe to say Vogue is sacred to me.

The idea of Vogue: the fashion, the glossy pages filled with the clothes, jewelery, shoes I know I’ll probably never be able to afford. Burberry trenches, Manolo Blahnik pumps, Oscar De La Renta dresses. I worship it all.

So when I saw that Adele was going to be on the cover of March’s Vogue, all I could think was, “Not again.”

Is this a personal attack against Adele? Absolutely not. I know she’s beyond talented, but does she primarily care about fashion? No. She cares most about her music, like she should.  And she’s said so herself.

Yet I’m not blaming her. She’s just caught up in the current cover trend Vogue  is utilizing as a staple practice rather than a passing fad.

This isn’t an isolated incident. It’s not new that American (editions in other countries are much less guilty of this sin) Vogue has slowly shied away from the previous practice of featuring models on the covers. They’ve been doing it for some time now. And I always have to ask, “Why, Vogue, why?”

What place did perpetually-pouty Kristen Stewart (who has time and time again said she pretty much despises everything about the celebrity realm, designer clothing included) have on the cover?

And what about Taylor Swift? What does she bring to the fashion table? Country chic? Maybe. Artfully-crafted designer elegance? Not quite.

I’m pretty sure no runway will be featuring cowboy boots anytime soon, just sayin’.

So what is the point of having her, or anyone not directly involved in the fashion industry, on the covers?

Selling issues. Plain and simple. Shameless publicity-inspired campaigns to get more movie ticket and album sales. To propel pre-teens to the latest “Twilight” movie, to get T. Swift fangirls even more pumped for her latest album with her latest song about Joe Jonas, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal…and err…whomever else she currently has a vendetta for. (End Taylor Swift rant.)

Now, I’ll completely switch sides here and confess that I do love some of the celebrity spreads — but for specific reasons.

Some of these cover models can pull it off, but it’s mainly because they’re all involved in fashion in some aspect, so they know what’s up.

Recent-ish cover models Scarlett Johansson, Marion Cotillard and Natalie Portman have all been featured in Dior ads; Lady Gaga was Alexander McQueen’s muse.

And don’t even get me started on how giddy the Sarah Jessica Parker, the queen of fashion from my all-time favorite TV show, “Sex and the City,” covers make me.

My favorite issue of Vogue to date is June 2008′s spread, featuring the very wedding dresses Carrie Bradshaw tried on in “Sex and the City” movie.

But the covers and photo spreads featuring these women revolved directly around thefashion, not the person being featured.

It makes me cringe to think of the days when the magazine was about everything in the fashion, not celebrity, realm.

I just want them to bring it back to basics. I want to read about the latest runway showing, the models, the spring and fall collections.

I want extravagant clothes. I want decadent jewelry. I want to idolize after the things I can never have being featured by people actually IN the industry.

I don’t want to dread a new issue every month, wondering how much more my once-favorite magazine, the reason I bust my ass every week as a student journalist (one can still hold out hope for the almost unattainable, right?), has sold out.

By featuring these women, is anyone paying attention to the focus of the magazine?

…No need to even answer that one.

All I’m asking is for the editor gods to put the stars on their respective covers. These girls are all beautiful, but doesn’t it make the most sense to feature Adele on the cover of Rolling Stone? Maybe put Kristen Stewart on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, Taylor Swift on Seventeen to appeal to her target audience.

But Vogue? Surely not.

It detracts from what the magazine stands for. It bastardizes the fashion industry it represents. It makes the covers and photo spreads feel like a cheap ploys for publicity.

It’s more like I’m picking up the lastest issue of Us Weekly rather than the pinnacle of fashion magazines. The celebrity appeal is obviously to attract more readers, and, ultimately, sales. But it devalues the principles behind the magazine.

So here I am, praying to Anna Wintour herself that if the magazine must feature celebrities on the cover, keep it focused. Respect your readers. Don’t jeopardize the meaning of the magazine. Remember, fashion, not fame.

After all, some of us read this magazine like scripture.